At the most glamorous of the many fab parties leading up to Art 40 Basel, a museum director told how she’s gone on a day trip to the Venice Biennale, after which she went for a massage and was roused by the sensation of something odd in her hand -- the penis of the masseur. The only reaction the tale elicited was laughter.
A day later in Basel, I heard another story, this one about a famous industrial designer who, after he received delivery of a classic ‘60s Aston Martin, took his penis in hand and rubbed it across the length of the automobile.
Dicking around was clearly the theme of the moment. On my way from Zurich to Basel, I was confronted with a Cameroonian taxi driver who tried to sell me an African mask -- "a replica of which was currently on view at the Beyeler Museum" -- and then offered to scout young talent for me in Africa.
Like my driver, I had not signed up for the main fair or any of the ancillary fairs (for once). As a result, I felt a newfound freedom to roam, to see and enjoy the peripatetic event, living outside the Willy Lowman-esque ball-and-shackle of gallery proprietorship.
In the process, I ended up with more business cards and feeling less beholden. The social hierarchy within the fair is comically demonstrated by the VIP Lounge, which itself contains VIP-VIP lounges, the most exclusive of which is sponsored by Netjets, a sort of a time-share for Gulfstreams. After managing to get myself smuggled in like so much excess baggage, it was hot and uncomfortable inside, just like being stuck on an airless plane.
Through it all, art is being consumed this way and that, right under your nose, and after getting caught in the whirlwind, sometimes by you. It’s an elating experience to behold. Sure it’s rather gross in a depression, but art excites and, someone told me, has a measurable neurological effect that prolongs your life. Viva la credit crunch, the hiatus is over, I’m starting to collect again -- though I must admit, after my return to reality and the collapse of my past five deals, I hope it didn’t amount to premature ejaculation.
A dealer in the fair was quoted on Bloomberg confessing to a dirty little secret those in the art business are nowadays all too familiar with: selling at substantial losses to maintain liquidity in order to keep things moving. It’s reassuring to know I’m not alone. Though many dealers seemed to be selling, I heard stories of just as many who were not.
But it’s the age-old lie, the art world’s version of original sin -- to state publicly that they sold like hotcakes when in reality they lost a fortune. Are my peers becoming the model of a new sociological type of the YUPPIE variety, namely MUDs: Middle-aged, Urban and Downwardly mobile? Spending money used to be a profession; now finding any is a chore.
As I was actually sitting with a client, a specialist from a major auction house called him to tell how I had burnt the works in his collection by shopping them around too aggressively. Art is the only field where you are enlisted to sell something only to be accused of diluting its value and ostracized for doing the very thing you were asked to undertake in the first instance.
No sooner had my client hung up on his call from the auction house, than my phone rang with the very same expert asking me to lunch the following week, knowing that only I had full access to the work. Talk about a zero sum mentality, for which the art world is famous. One dealer sells, it is perceived, only at the expense of another.
A few days later another dealer (who might be from Canada) called my client to state he had seen the very paintings we were offering for sale on the Internet, which was the death knell for any kind of discrete transfer of title. Nothing could be further from the truth, but that was beside the point, which was, so to speak, backstabbing.
Emblematic of the degree of gossip, innuendo and disinformation swirling around the art world in the attempt to undermine business are the following: One dealer "friend" called to relay that he had heard that a painting I was selling through a dealer participating at the fair was being sold, for more than I was let on to believe, to a Russian with a famous girlfriend. Although the pricing story turned out to be false, the identity of the collector was entirely correct. The reconnaissance of the art world is worthy of the CIA and MI5 combined.
In the end, the show of public consumption for the sake of the girlfriend was followed by a swift cancellation, made only after the fair and invoice were complete. A few deals later I was contacted by the same deep-throat dealer who again knew the precise details of a multi-million-dollar deal I was in the midst of. The only upside is that I was relieved to know I wasn’t suffering from extreme paranoia due the accuracy of the third party information I am constantly bombarded with. Can someone explain why art-world insiders have such big mouths?
Museums and auction houses are cutting more and more positions after the spring/summer 2009 sales declined by three-quarters to 80 percent. At the London auctions in June, two important late Picasso paintings of musketeers, bought in 2005 for £2.7 million and in 2000 for £4 million, respectively, sold for £5.75 million, and £7 million. Picasso you could sell even in a post-nuclear apocalypse.
Funny too with the sale of a Richard Prince "Nurse" painting for $3 million, versus last year’s result of $8 million for the same-sized nurse. With price depreciation like that, you would need a nurse. Amazingly that was the only work in the sale with a third-party guarantee.
For the most part though, the favorite artists in today’s market are dead ones. Mine, too -- they are a hell of a lot easier to deal with. Even so, just when it appeared the auctions stopped making records like the music industry, 18 were set at Phillips London in June for primarily younger artists. Only a short time ago, in my London neighborhood, I witnessed two Ferrari test-drives in one morning -- if that’s not a ray of hope, what is?
And there are always smart plays, even in a down market. I had assiduously avoided the recent group of hip, young New York, until one became an auction highflier at a tender young age. I decided that if you can’t beat them, join them. So I bought one and was able to resell it for twice what I paid before I paid for it, which was still only fair market value, thus the glory of the inefficiencies of the market.
Fittingly, the subject matter of the work was an abstract depiction of animal shit.
KENNY SCHACHTER operates Kenny Schachter / Rove on Hoxton Square in London.